The Mid-Century Clock: What Every Mid-Century Modern Enthusiast Should Know and Love

The first Starburst Clock I acquired: an Elgin, most likely produced in America.
An awesome Christmas gift.

My favorite quote is about a cuckoo clock. Only, it’s not so much about a clock. It’s more about history and climate and culture. And art. And tyrants. This quote pits oppressive virtuosity against contented mediocrity. Stolen from a combative American painter, these lines were re-crafted by an innovative actor, director, and writer with the sole purpose of filling an extra seventeen seconds of screen time. Given all that complexity, it’s fascinating Orson Welles’ unscripted, romanticized dialog in the 1949 British film, The Third Man, has become known simply as the “Cuckoo Clock Speech.”

“You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced MichelangeloLeonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Breaking it down to specifics, this speech has more holes than Swiss Cheese, and has been ripped apart by historians, artists, intellectuals, and general know-it-alls, with the most argued points being:

  • The House of Borgia was prominent during the Renaissance, not preceding it
  • The Borgias reigned concurrent to the careers of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, not before. The Borgias were actually patrons of Michelangelo, while Leonardo was patronized by their arch-enemies, the Medici
  • While the Borgias flourished in Italy, Switzerland had “the most powerful and feared military force in Europe” and was not the peacefully neutral country it would later become, in the mid-eighteen hundreds
  • The Cuckoo Clock was invented in the Black of Forest of Bavaria (Germany) sometime in the seventeenth century, not in Switzerland
  • Not much came out of Switzerland during the Renaissance Era because the country was isolated and poor, with thin mountain soil and a bad climate

Despite all those pesky, nitpicky facts, I find the overall theme of Welles’ speech to be spot on. I believe after times of destitution, turmoil, atrocity, and warfare, there is a rebirth, or even explosion, of art. And its mood—pessimistic, optimistic, or, God-forbid, neutral—is irrelevant, especially if said art is in the form of say…a Cuckoo Clock. Or, if you happen to be a mid-century modern nut and prefer your clocks to burst from the center without the aid of a startling, wooden birdie.

My grandmother’s mid-century Cuckoo Clock.
A gift from my dad, straight from the Black Forest.

In the mid-1960s, my dad guarded the Berlin wall while stationed in Germany with the U.S. Army. A time of peace in the United States, I can only imagine the ongoing turmoil in East Berlin as people continued the difficult and blockaded process of recovering from a destructive war and ongoing oppression. Despite the strife he witnessed on the other side of the wall, my father returned to Kansas with a handful of souvenirs from his ancestral homeland: a small collection of Cuckoo Clocks. One he kept for himself and his future family, one he gave to his mother, and, we believe, he passed on a couple to his sisters.

I have the one he gave his mother, which hung on her living room wall for the remaining duration of her life—about forty years. Made in the mid-century and fashioned from wood, metal gears, cast iron pine cone weights, and a carved maple leave pendulum, this clock has, in effect, the exact same function as its stylistically modern cousins: to keep time.

Fifteen years before my dad snagged his German treasures, an archetype, mid-century modern clock design sprung from the minds at Nelson Associates in New York City, a thriving American metropolis never to be confused with Switzerland or the Black Forest. George Nelson’s company designed for the Howard Miller Clock Company beginning in 1947. The story of their first success in George Nelson’s words:

“And there was one night when the ball clock got developed, which was one of the really funny evenings. Noguchi came by, and Bucky Fuller came by. I’d been seeing a lot of Bucky those days, and here was Irving and here was I, and Noguchi, who can’t keep his hands off anything, you know—it is a marvelous, itchy thing he’s got—he saw we were working on clocks and he started making doodles. Then Bucky sort of brushed Isamu aside. He said, ‘This is a good way to do a clock,’ and he made some utterly absurd thing. Everybody was taking a crack at this, pushing each other aside and making scribbles.

An original George Nelson Ball Clock.
No one has gifted this to me yet (hint, hint…).

At some point we left—we were suddenly all tired, and we’d had a little bit too much to drink—and the next morning I came back, and here was this roll (of drafting paper), and Irving and I looked at it, and somewhere in this roll there was a ball clock. I don’t know to this day who cooked it up. I know it wasn’t me. It might have been Irving, but he didn’t think so…(we) both guessed that Isamu had probably done it because (he) has a genius for doing two stupid things and making something extraordinary…out of the combination…. (or) it could have been an additive thing, but, anyway, we never knew.”

Given Mr. Nelson’s story, it’s up for debate if their initial clock grew out of warfare or brotherly love (using Orson Wells’ terms). Launched in 1948, the Ball Clock picked up the name “Atomic” because it resembled the structure of an atom. Perhaps not a coincidence, its inception corresponded with the infancy the Atomic Era in design.

Evolution pushed the Ball Clock toward arguably the most iconic clock design of the modernism movement, the Sunburst, or Starburst Clock. Much more versatile in interpretation than the Ball Clock, this new design was conceived in 1949 by Nelson Associates for Howard Miller. However, this new concept literally burst into an array of materials, complexities, and compositions by designers and manufactures around the world.

A mid-century Forestville, Starburst Clock.
I picked this up as a birthday gift for a dear friend,
but now I’m having second thoughts.

This last Thanksgiving, I picked up my second Starburst Clock. I was naïve enough to ask the check-out clerk at the antique mall if it worked, or if they had a battery we could test it with. He and I both examined how the movement was attached with itty-bitty screws to the back of the clock and gave in to the obvious hassle. I purchased as is, telling myself it could surely be repaired it necessary. The next day, after a bit of research, I realized it was a wind-up clock (so that’s what the funny looking hole on the face of the clock was for…). I didn’t have a winding key, and during my investigation the glass door covering the face came unhinged, so my next stop with the clock was the neighborhood jewelry shop.

When I retrieved the clock a week later, my enthusiasm for mid-century modern design was perhaps a bit over-the-top. The clock guy saw an opportunity and asked me to follow him to the back of the shop. What sat on a dusty shelf in a dark hall by the back door caused me to gasp. After he’d satisfied himself that it kept near accurate time, I bought yet another mid-century clock, this one at a bargain price.

Dugena is a German company that bought clocks and sold them under their own name, much like a department store brand. They re-branded this particular clock which was made by Hermle, a Black Forest clock maker that rose from the ashes in Germany in 1922, shortly after WWI. Surviving the depression and the devastations of WWII, Hermle went on to thrive in the mid-century and is still going strong today, manufacturing a wide variety of clocks, movements, pendulums and dials. Not unlike a twentieth-century Michelangelo, raising from “warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed.”

A 1965 Dugena (Hermle) mantle clock.
Modern with an Art Deco twist, this one I gifted to myself.

George Nelson, a student of architecture and an accomplished designer and writer, lent himself to a modern-day Leonardo de Vinci. Howard Miller, who put his stamp of approval on every clock Nelson’s team designed, was trained in the art and science of clock making by his father, Herman Miller, in the German Black Forest. While crafting his profound dialog, was Wells actually considering his contemporaries—modern day artists and patrons whose legacies carried on into our current century?

Historians may be satisfied with the Cuckoo Clock speech “holes” listed above, but artists, aficionados, and mid-century modern enthusiasts should demand an addendum. Although “every day” and functionally necessary in our modern world, a clock can’t be mocked for lacking significant artistic value. Considering that some of Nelson’s original clocks sold under the Miller brand are currently listed on online auction sites for thousands of dollars, it’s fair to say these objects are sought-out treasures.

Designed in America after many years of depression and warfare, and approved and marketed by a Black Forest trained patron, the modern Ball and Starburst Clocks united post oppression artistry with the true home of the Cuckoo Clock. That’s a well-crafted, lucrative twist of “brotherly love” even the Swiss would envy.

Sources:

Reddit: Ask Historians. Web. 23 Jan 2018.

https://www.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/130cv5/is_the_cuckoo_clock_speech_given_by_orson_welles/

“House of Borgia”. Wikipedia. N.p.,n.d. Web. 23 Jan 2018.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_of_Borgia

“George Nelson (1908-1986), USA Biography and More”. N.p.,n.d. Web. 23 Jan 2018.

http://www.georgenelson.org/georgenelsonbiography.html

Joiner, Ronald. “Dugena Mantel Clock Revisited”. Antique and Vintage Clock Collecting and Repair. Web. 23 Jan 2018.

https://ronaldjoiner.wordpress.com/2017/05/07/revisiting-my-dugena-mantel-clock-yet-again-as-yogi-berra-would-have-said/

Oliver, Richard. “Franz Hermele Clock Company History”. Antique Clocks Guy. Web. 23 Jan 2018.

http://www.clockguy.com/SiteRelated/SitePages/ContactUs.html

 

The Vintage Witch Trials: What Every Mid-Century Modern Enthusiast Should Know and Love

Dedicated to my video producer, favorite redhead, and the loveliest witch I’ve ever known

My Ginger

My Ginger

This story starts at the end of another, in a 1950’s, high-style modern movie. After months apart, Kim Novak and Jimmy Stewart ponder the disputed origins of their broken romance. Upon the realization that the experience changed Miss Novak—she lost her supernatural powers—the couple fall into a passionate embrace. Once again, Mr. Stewart’s blue eyes dance with excitement, their exaggerated brightness thanks in part to Technicolor voodoo.

Woven through these intimate moments are his words: “The story is, it [her loss of power] only happens if you fall in love. It’s been happening to me too, kiddo. Ever since I walked in here. Only it’s real this time. Or has it been real all along?” His final question puts a twist on the whole movie, and proposes a romantic yet thoughtful query: “Who’s to say what magic is?”

"Who's to say what magic is?"

“Who’s to say what magic is?”

After his thoroughly enjoyable performance in this 1958 film, Bell, Book and Candle, I decided it was only polite to give him a considerate, period appropriate answer to that last, lingering question about magic. So I turned the question over to a gentleman who was at the top of his game that year, an icon and entertainer who professes to completely understand feminine sorcery. I gave it to a crooner whose blue eyes required no Technicolor enhancement, Mr. Frank Sinatra.

Sinatra’s response to the question comes in the form of a song, which was recorded a year prior to our movie, in 1957. His song, appropriately titled “Witchcraft”, clearly lays out the defining elements of that seductive, womanly magic. Frank lists several features, and I pulled out six that seem to be reasonably easy to identify.

Fingers in his hair

A sly, come-hither stare

Makes him defenseless

Creates intense heat

Stirs his heart

Is a Nice witch

But why should we reserve our magic analysis to only Kim Novak’s portrayal of Gillian Holroyd? Let’s collect a handful of fictitious, mid-century witches portrayed on screen and put them all on trial. Will they adhere to Sinatra’s definition of modern witchery? I’d love to hear Frank say, “Yeah, that broad’s a witch.”

 

Witch:  Glinda, the Good Witch of the North

Actress:  Billie Burke

Screen:  The Wizard of Oz – a movie

Year:  1939

Genre:  Fantasy/Musical

For goodness sake.

For goodness sake.

“Only bad witches are ugly.”

~Glinda

A lot of fun gets poked at Glinda. There is a belief that she tells Dorothy near the end of the film that, all along, she had the power to return home. By merely clicking her heels together and thinking, “there’s no place like home,” Dorothy could escape the lush beauty and excitement of Munchkinland and Oz, and return to her dreary dirt farm in Kansas. As a former Kansas farm girl, I’m telling you, I’d think twice about that return trip.

Glinda has been ridiculed for keeping this knowledge from Dorothy, and many bloggers and vloggers even go so far as to suggest Glinda is actually a bad witch, by not being truthful with Dorothy and by exposing her to unnecessary harm.

But listen closely to Glinda’s words in her final scene. She tells Dorothy that she only had the power to return home after she discovered why her heart wanted to go there. Dorothy undertook the yellow brick road journey—a difficult and challenging one—in order to appreciate what she had been separated from. Glinda put her on that path instead of waving her wand and sending her home, and that act of charity over the simplicity of magic makes Glinda a beautiful witch, inside and out.

That same beauty renders the Wicked Witch of the West defenseless against Glinda. To help Dorothy, Glinda magically transfers the ruby red slippers from the feet of the dead Wicked Witch of the East to Dorothy. The Wicked Witch of the West has no moral issues about using her power to get whatever she wants (the slippers), yet she’s reduced to threatening Dorothy and her innocent dog, instead of using witchcraft to remove them and be on her way.

 

"I'll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!"

“I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!”

Glinda’s true power springs from her sense of charity. Whether its source is witchcraft or a passion for goodness, Sinatra would be defenseless to condemn her for the gift she gives Dorothy: an understanding of the magic within her own heart.

“Oh…rubbish. You have no power here. Be gone before somebody drops a house on you, too.”

~Glinda

 

Witch:  Jennifer

Actress:  Veronica Lake

Screen:  I Married a Witch – a movie

Year:  1942

Genre:  Fantasy/Romance/Comedy

Steamy with a touch of mink.

Steamy with a touch of mink.

It would be nice to have lips to whisper lies. Lips to kiss a man and make him suffer.

-Jennifer

The old adage—where there’s smoke there’s fire—fits this witch to a T. She’s introduced as a whisper of smoke, after having been burned at the stake in 1690s Massachusetts. Jennifer and her father Daniel are denounced as witches and caught up in the Salem witch trials hysteria.

In 1941, another form of intense heat, a lightning bolt, zaps the Oak tree that has been restraining Jennifer and her father outside of Salem for over two hundred years. A large branch breaks and releases their spirits, which again take the form of smoke. But it takes a fire in the Pilgrim Hotel, started by her warlock father, to transform Jennifer’s smokin’ body to one that’s intensely hot. By intensely hot, I’m referring to that of the sizzling Veronica Lake, the actress portraying Jennifer.

The story repeatedly presents us with blazes in fireplaces, sometimes so Jennifer can talk to her father (he needs fire to turn into a body) or so she can create a magical love potion. Not surprising, the steamy love potion she concocts is drank by the wrong person, with the sparks of love cast in reverse of their intentions.

Brewing Love Potions 101

Brewing Love Potions 101

There’s no doubt in Sinatra’s mind that Jennifer is a thoroughly modern witch. Her sophistication and charm burn up the silver screen.

Love is stronger than witchcraft.”

~Jennifer

 

Witch:  Gillian Holroyd

Actress:  Kim Novak

Screen:  Bell, Book & Candle – a movie

Year: 1958

Genre:  Fantasy/Drama

Double stare.

Double stare.

“I wish you wouldn’t stare at me so.”

~Gillian

Kim Novak’s eyes are mystic—a light shade of green that renders observers spellbound. How fitting for her to play Gillian Holroyd, a mid-century New York witch who may or may not have cast a love spell using an iconic, seductive stare. The image of Gillian with her face partially shielded by her familiar—a cat named Pyewacket—has evolved as a representation of the entire film. Gillian’s soft green eyes above Pyewacket’s bright blue eyes creates a mesmerizing sight, an echo of sorcery fused with an inescapable tune.

Gillian hums a seductive variation of the theme song while the cat purrs, both sets of eyes solidly fixed on an unsuspecting gentleman, Shep Henderson. Then, through either magic or Technicolor trickery, Gillian’s eyes begin to mirror the cat’s and turn to a bright blue. The results of her long, intense stare? Did she cast a spell? It’s never really clear, buts Gillian’s artful attempt has kept me entranced with this film, many times over.

Shep: Have you been engaging in un-American activities?

Gillian: I would say very American…Early American.

 

Witch:  Samantha Stephens

Actress:  Elizabeth Montgomery

Screen:  Bewitched – Television Series

Years:  1964 – 1972

Genre:  Situation Comedy

That smile!

That smile!

I’ll be the best wife a man ever had.”

~ Samantha

She means it. You can tell by the warmth of her ever gleaming smile. Samantha Stephens is lovely yet practical, the picture perfect housewife, ever friendly neighbor, charming and affectionate wife, dotting mother… Oh, did I mention she’s a witch? Nothing about her really says, “witch”, except of course, the way she twitches her nose and situations magically change.

But everything about her says, “nice.” In the pilot episode, Samantha promises to give up witchcraft—a birthright that makes everyday life easier—for the happiness of her new husband, Darrin. Arguably, her self sacrifice is the true definition of love.

Upon returning from their honeymoon, Darrin’s overly affectionate ex-girlfriend, Sheila, invites the newlyweds over to her lavish home for a get-together. Sheila’s cover story is that she wants Samantha to meet the “the gang.” Apparently it’s not obvious to Darrin, but we recognize her jealousy and vengeance brewing when she extends the invitation.

At the party, Sam is tricked, humiliated and embarrassed, yet she remains gracious and kind far longer than reasonable. It’s not until Shelia is sinking her claws into Darrin that Sam, with the sweetest of smiles, intervenes with a bit of effective witchcraft. Yes, even class acts have their limits. And it kinda makes me wonder, “who was the real witch in this scene?”

There’s no nicer witch than Samantha Stephens. Sinatra knows it, and so do we. She didn’t use witchcraft to win Darrin’s heart, a trick our previous two witches attempted to employ. With genuine affection, Samantha rounds out the mid-century era of witches with beauty, kindness, and the purest romance.

Would an old-fashioned witch vacuum? Heck no. Sam is as modern as they come.

Would an old-fashioned witch vacuum? Heck no. Sam is as modern as they come.

The mid-century modern witch, at least as portrayed on film, casts off the centuries old, stereotypical, haggard appearance for a clean, sleek, polished elegance. No surprise, as that look defines mid-century modern style. And her heart, at least how it’s represented at the post climax point when we say goodbye to her on film, is lovely. It’s light and refreshing, like the gin and tonic Sinatra holds in his hand. It’s soft and warm, draped across Frank’s back, like the delicate arms of his favorite, sultry, mid-century witch.

Frank with Kim Novak. That witch can stare!

Frank with Kim Novak. Man, that witch can stare!

 

George Shearing: What Every Mid-Century Modern Enthusiast Should Know and Love

Shearing to crop

George Shearing, 1959

Defining light with sound…

To step into the world with a disability could be daunting for some people. The realization that you are not equipped for a “normal” life—that you must lay out an alternative path for yourself that most people don’t understand…it’s an overwhelming thought. Yet some people pull this task off flawlessly.

George Shearing was born congenitally blind. When those of us with vision close our eyes we see darkness. Did Mr. Shearing see darkness? How would he know? If you can’t see light, can you define darkness? Without light, does darkness even exist? These are questions for philosophers…and scientists…and perhaps mid-century enthusiasts.

Mr. Shearing came into his world in 1919 in the Battersea area of London, the youngest of nine children. James Shearing, his father, was employed as a coal worker, while his mother, Ellen, raised children by day and cleaned train cars at night. Young George began paving his own path by dropping glass bottles from an upstairs window of the family home and listening to them shatter. Milk bottles, to Shearing’s ears, represented classical sounds while beer bottles denoted jazz tones. The family piano also served as an enlightenment, as he picked out tunes beginning at the age of three.

He received formal musical training at Linden Lodge School for the Blind, where he studied piano after being inspired by American jazz artists Art Tatum and Fats Waller. A teacher there steered him away from the classics after recognizing George’s talents for improvisation. His gifts, coupled with hard work, opened up a world of college opportunities to study music. Yet financial circumstances restrained him, keeping him in night clubs, performing for five dollars a week and meager success.

After World War II George took a leap, landing in the United States. However, booking agents weren’t impressed, as they attempted to compare him to other musicians. A spark of light told George he needed to develop a sound all his own. So he did, and it became known as The Shearing Sound.

He laid the foundation with a quintet:  a vibraphone, guitar, piano, bass, and drums. Shearing hoped to attain a “full block sound” as he called it, and to achieve this he arranged for the vibraphone to double what his right hand played and the guitar to double his left. In effect he crafted a sophisticated sub-genre of jazz, loved and appreciated by listeners worldwide who boasted more gentle musical appetites.

Two years after immigrating to the United States, The George Shearing Quintet recorded its first international hit, “September in the Rain.”  The single’s success boosted bookings in night clubs and concerts, and solidified the allure of Shearing’s innovative sound. The song was composed in 1937 and Shearing’s 1949 interpretation is cool…a continuous light, bouncy, repetition, most noticeably between the vibraphone and piano.

The syncopated and swingin’ 1952 “Lullaby of Birdland,” adopted by its namesake New York City jazz club as its theme song, became a true jazz standard. Composed by Shearing, this foot-tappin’ groove puts a smile on my face but would never put me to sleep.

The spotlight remained on Shearing for two decades then filtered lightly as smooth jazz fell out of favor with popular audiences. Yet he continued to record and perform to the delight of many.

Coming out of the darkness with sound…

A few years ago I was thrust into a new world. Darkness encompassed me for many months. There was no defined path for my situation—I’d never known another person who found themselves in this awful reawakening. I couldn’t find anyone strong enough to pull me out of the darkness, only a few sincere friends telling me it would be okay. But how did they know? When they closed their eyes they didn’t see my world. What they imagined as my reality was nowhere near how it felt or looked through my sorely damaged eyes.

This new world robbed me of a few things essential to healthy living, one of those being good sleep. I’d awaken many times at night, my heart racing. I’d gone from a person who relished sleep and nighttime to one who dreaded the thought of being alone in the dark. Fear of the unknown consumed me, creating severe anxiety and illness.

Like the deliverance Shearing must have felt when he first heard glass shatter upon cobblestones outside his window, I too was released from my misery and fear by sound. Interestingly, the sound I heard was produced by Shearing himself, over fifty years ago.

George and Nancy

My first experience with Shearing. Love everything about this album and it’s modern cover.

I was talking to a friend one night, and he told me he was listening to George Shearing and Nancy Wilson’s, The Swingin’s Mutual.  This didn’t ring a bell, but my friend and I have very similar musical tastes. Curious, I pulled the album up on YouTube. In an instant, everything clicked, and I once again awakened in a different world. Like Shearing’s shattering glass, a new sound enlightened me. It pulled me into an existence of calm. It steered me to a bright path—once again I sleep peacefully through the night and no longer fear the dark.

Most of the music I listen to originates from the mid-century, and I’ve long been a fan of cool jazz. How was it possible I was unfamiliar with the gentle swing of Shearing’s signature sound—one that epitomizes the uncluttered, organized, and polished characteristics of mid-century modern? I think it was a matter of timing. Shearing found his way to me when I most needed him.

a Lullaby in Birdland

This album was a gift from a dear friend. I love how Shearing is in the spotlight.

I’m not a musician, but my interpretation of jazz is that its magic lies in its timing and strong use of syncopation. Syncopation is defined as “a temporary displacement of the regular metrical accent in music caused typically by stressing the weak beat.”

In the dark world I was trapped in, I’d become a miserable and weak beat. But Shearing wouldn’t stand for it. He wrapped his enchanted fingers around me and recomposed me as the accent in a delightful new piece. To thank him is not enough. Instead, I close my eyes and imagine a dimly lit mid-century nightclub, soothing cocktails, and a close friend. I see a charming world in which crisp sounds weave through my entire being and illuminate all that was once dark.

“September in the Rain”. Wikipedia. N.p.,n.d. Web. 22 May 2016.

<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/September_in_the_Rain>

Keepnews, Peter. “George Shearing, ‘Lullaby of Birdland’ Jazz Virtuoso, Dies at 91”. The New York Times. 14 Feb 2011. Web. 22 May 2016.

<http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/15/arts/music/15shearing.html?_r=1>

 

 

 

 

Sunday in New York and The Eames Lounge (670) and Ottoman (671): What Every Mid-Century Modern Enthusiast Should Know and Love

Sunday_in_New_York_(1963)

“How bold one gets when one is sure of being loved.”

~Sigmund Freud

Fortunately for mid-century modern enthusiasts, bold doesn’t have to equate with orange, molded fiberglass chairs or plaid, polyester slacks. Instead, bold can be defined as standing your ground, holding to your tastes, convictions, passions…  Simply, boldness is knowing who you are and remaining fearless to express it…or blog about it.

Two Sundays ago I was down with the flu. In the theme of staying true to myself, I decided this was the perfect opportunity to find a mid-century sex comedy to watch, preferably one I hadn’t already seen. While flipping through Facebook that afternoon, a post to a favorite page of mine, “The Retro Cocktail Hour,” jumped out at me. It was Bobby Darin’s version of “Sunday in New York”, put to a video. I only hit the play button to hear Darin sing. But to my delight, the video contained clips of the 1963 movie of the same name. Who knew there was a movie? And with Rod Taylor? I was immediately all over that.

Admittedly, I haven’t seen many Jane Fonda films. I haven’t even got sweaty to Jane Fonda’s Workout video. But eight minutes into this film I found myself impressed with her acting, a skill highlighted by the perky boldness of the character she played.

Fonda portrays Eileen Tyler, an Albany newspaper writer who heads to New York City early on a Sunday morning. Her first stop is the apartment of her older brother, a swinging bachelor employed as a commercial pilot for TWA. She’s escaping the unhappiness of a break-up with her beau and looking for an answer to a question regarding the specific reason why men continue to dump her.

Her quandary? “Is a girl that’s been going around with a fellow for a reasonable length of time supposed to go to bed with him or not?” Bold, direct, and impassioned—Miss Fonda delivers this line like a boss. Impressive, considering Fonda was only twenty-six and this was her first big role. Relevant, considering her character is a twenty-two-year-old virgin.

Her playboy brother, Adam, played by Cliff Robertson, is shocked by her question and explains that men want to marry decent girls, and that the men comprising her love life must be bums. Then he delivers a bit of his own boldness by lying to her. He insists he’s not slept with anyone. Well…the “not sleeping” part is true.

Rod Taylor, whom I adore as an actor, is Mike Mitchell, a sports writer from Philadelphia who enjoys going to New York on Sundays, often in pursuit of romance. Masculine and somewhat aggressive, Mike never overwhelms Eileen but dances the man/gentleman line. His reaction to her virtue sends the storyline in an unexpected new direction, and initiates a stimulating and honest discussion about sex for “beginners.”

Adam's apartment 3

A strong fourth character introduced in the first scene with Adam and Eileen is Adam’s Manhattan apartment. Although many of the details of the apartment such as the doors and trim, fireplace mantel, columns, and stairway in the outside hall suggest the building is early twentieth century— possibly even Victorian— its renovated architecture and décor are indeed mid-century modern.

The bedroom, living room, and kitchen are on different levels yet remain completely open to each other. Adam is able to stand in his living room and toss his luggage up to the bedroom on the second level. A crude, industrial metal spiral staircase is the access to the bedroom and is used throughout the film brilliantly to create comedy, tension, and suspense.

Adam's apartment 4 better

A handful of modern pieces play into the space; a sleek, cone, tension-pole, lamp light and an off-white, clean-lined sofa boasts an array of earth toned pillows, to name a couple. Anchoring the entire apartment, and perhaps the movie as a whole, is arguably the most iconic mid-century modern chair ever designed—the Eames lounge chair (670) and its side kick ottoman (671).

Introduced in 1956 for the Herman Miller Furniture Company, this chair and ottoman was designed by husband and wife team, Charles and Ray Eames, after years of development. These pieces were the first exception to the couple’s rule of making “the best for the most for the least,” as this set was a high end product inspired by the traditional English Club Chair. Masculine, modern, upscale…it’s no wonder this chair received a starring role in this film.

cliff and chair

The Eames Chair and Ottoman—a truly central character.

others and chair

 

Sunday in New York mirrors two unlikely characters against each other:  Eileen and the Eames lounge.

Features of Eileen’s polished style—bright blue eyes, perky golden locks, and slender figure—are well suited for the seven costume changes she undergoes on this one day. Designed by Orry George Kelly, her clothing is tasteful, attractive, and conservatively fashionable. The Eames lounge, comparatively, is supported by polished rosewood and elegantly dressed in supple, black leather. Charles and Ray Eames designed the lounge to appeal to affluent men. Eileen’s look has the same allure.

The storyline focuses on how three different men react to the status of Eileen’s sexuality, and her frustration with the situation. Unfortunately, the lounge and ottoman take the brunt of her agitation as she bounces off the chair’s armrest and seat. Mike’s in a state of exasperation both times he briefly sits on the ottoman. Not once in the film does anyone settle into the chair, elevated their feet on the ottoman, and relax. But that’s exactly what this furniture was designed for—someone to sink into it’s supportive goodness and fall in love.

The mid-century boldness of both characters, the girl and the chair, lay not in flashiness but in the fact they are both one-of-a-kind. An introspective Eileen states “…it’s my firm conviction I’m the only 22-year-old virgin alive.” When first unveiled to the buying public, the exclusive Eames lounge was simply a piece of furniture like nothing else.

Ultimately, Eileen finds sustaining love without first sacrificing her virginity. Does the Eames chair find the love it desires? Well, this same lounge chair (670) and ottoman (671) have been in continuous production by Herman Miller using virtually the same design since they were introduced in 1956. That’s sixty years of love between the lounge and consumers with affluence and good-taste.

If Sigmund Freud had the opportunity to analyze the Eames lounge, could he of come up with a better definition of love? I think within an hour we’d find him cradled in leather, peacefully taking a nap. And I can’t think of a better thing to do on a rainy Sunday in Vienna, or more appropriately, New York.

Sources:

Wikipedia. N.p.,n.d. Web. 16 Mar 2016.

<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eames_Lounge_Chairurces>

 

Wikipedia. N.p.,n.d. Web. 16 Mar 2016.

<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eames_Lounge_Chair>

 

Herman Miller Store. Web. 16 Mar 2016.

<http://store.hermanmiller.com/store/servlet/DynamicKitDisplayView?langId=-1&storeId=10151&catalogId=10051&categoryId=&dynamicKitId=14640>

 

“The Best for the Most for the Least”. Eames Official Site. Web. 16 Mar 2016

<http://www.eamesoffice.com/the-work/the-best-for-the-most-for-the-least/>

<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eames_Lounge_Chair>

 

The Vince Guaraldi Trio’s “Skating”: What Every Mid-Century Modern Enthusiast Should Know and Love

For Aaron, who shares my affection for Vince Guaraldi

Press play and “Skate” as you read

Some of the most celebrated, feel-good Christmas songs never mention the words “Jesus”, “presents”, “Santa Claus”, “love”, “winter”, or even “Christmas” . As a matter of fact, some of those songs don’t have words, but rather express a wintertime recreation so articulately you feel yourself engaged in the activity. The spirit it leaves you with comprises warmth, happiness, and gaiety…an easy linear move to Christmas euphoria.

I always sense that particular joy when I hear Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride.” We performed the exciting orchestral piece when I played clarinet in junior high band, and a passion for the song never left me. It cultivated my love of the symphony, rustic winter scenes, and the lithographs of Currier and Ives. The rhythms and perfectly timed tones of different instruments place my mind in a wooden and metal sleigh with two brown horses pulling me through the snowy woods. I am cozy and warm, nestled amongst family, on the way to a Christmas party. That’s how I imagine it.

While writing my last blog post about the aluminum Christmas tree and its nemesis—Charlie Brown’s Christmas TV show—I found myself listening more intently to the program’s musical soundtrack, A Charlie Brown Christmas, performed by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. The album’s songs are a combination of traditional pieces and some composed by Guaraldi.

All of these recordings from the originally released album have worked their way into the tapestry of popular American Christmas music. I frequently listen to the “Frank Sinatra & Bing Crosby (Holiday) Radio station through Pandora (yes, I listen year-round—Christmas makes me happy) and Guaraldi’s Peanuts tunes pop up frequently in the rotation. These recordings are purely American and thoroughly mid-century modern. Also, they’re a uniquely delightful blend of subtle bossa nova and definitive cool jazz.

Jazz music evolved rapidly in America in the twentieth century. The earliest form was Dixieland, which began around the turn of the century in New Orleans. Around 1910 those early musicians took their sound to Chicago and New York, with some of those performers in search of better employment. The style of music at that point was referred to as Chicago jazz or hot jazz.

The swing era of the 1940s put a fresh spin on popular music, ending the careers of many hot jazz musicians. This decade also gave rise to a jazz style with complex harmonies and rhythms known as Bebop. But the West Coast, already known for a more relaxed lifestyle, had its own musical ideas.

In California during the post war 1940s, jazz invented its own regional dialect. Known as West Coast jazz or cool jazz, this breed is characterized by relaxed tempos and lighter tones. In contrast to the heavy use of improvisation in hot jazz, cool jazz often employs formal arrangements and even fuses elements of classical music into its structure.

I have long been a fan of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, a group that grew out of the California cool jazz movement. “Take Five”, composed by the group’s alto saxophone player, Paul Desmond, is one of my favorite pieces of music. The score for A Charlie Brown Christmas always reminded me of Brubeck, and now I understand why—Vince Guaraldi and Brubeck were both composing at the same time in San Francisco.

snip - Schroder and Vince

Guaraldi was born in San Francisco in 1928. He would have remained only a minor contributor in the jazz world had it not been for his B-side composition, “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.” The single became a grassroots hit and won a Grammy for Best Original Jazz Composition. It also got the attention of Peanuts producer Lee Mendelson. He hired Guaraldi to score the first Peanuts television special, a documentary called, A Boy Named Charlie Brown.

Guaraldi composed and recorded the soundtrack, but the program never aired; Mendelson could never sell it. However, Coca Cola was intrigued about the idea of a Peanuts’ Christmas special, and Mendelson and Guaraldi once again collaborated, this time for a CBS special.

CBS viewed the final product—A Charlie Brown Christmas—before it was aired, but expressed their lack of enthusiasm. They even questioned the appeal of a jazzy/bossa nova soundtrack for a children’s Christmas special. But it was too late—the air date had already been published in TV Guide. Despite the doubts of CBS executives, the show was a smash hit. And so was its unique soundtrack, which eventually sold over three million copies.

“Skating” is one of those original compositions on the sound track. It’s purely instrumental. And it’s amazing to me that Vince Guaraldi was able to pull off with three instruments—a piano, bass, and drums—what Leroy Anderson did with an entire symphony for “Sleigh Ride.”

According to Derrick Bang in his Cuepoint blog post, “How Vince Guaraldi Made Charlie Brown Cool”, “‘Skating,’[is] a lyrical jazz waltz highlighted by sparkling keyboard runs that sounded precisely like children ice-skating joyously on a frozen pond.” Bang also quoted a newspaper columnist as saying, “The cascading notes to Guaraldi’s Vivaldi-like ‘Skating’ are the most vivid representation of falling snowflakes in music.”

I visualize Guaraldi at a grand piano, his dancing fingers floating above the keys, often keeping a bit of air between his fingertips and the slick ebony and ivory of the keys. The sound is light, defying gravity. It also matches the skater’s objectives perfectly—to make as little contact with the ice as possible.

snip - Peanut's gang skating

When I was about twelve I received ice skates for Christmas. My resourceful, industrious, and creative father excavated about five inches of earth from the plot of land which had been our large vegetable garden the previous summer. After lining the shallow void with plastic sheeting, he filled it with water. Adding a little cold, Kansas, winter weather, I soon had a private skating rink.

I spent hours on the ice, breaking-in my new skates, surrounded with rustic nature and dancing to a continuous song in my head. I’m pretty sure, whatever it was, that upbeat, melodic, cascading tune resembled a Guaraldi waltz, undoubtedly replanted in my head year after year while snuggled up with my family in front of the TV, engaged in pre-Christmas euphoria.

Sources:

Wikipedia. N.p.,n.d. Web. 23 Dec 2015.
<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cool_jazz>.

Wikipedia. N.p.,n.d. Web. 23 Dec 2015.
<https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vince_Guaraldi>.

Bang, Derrick. “How Vince Guaraldi Made Charlie Brown Cool”. Cuepoint. Medium.com. Web. 16 Dec 2014.

<https://medium.com/cuepoint/how-vince-guaraldi-made-charlie-brown-cool-92d50fb4824e#.tixhnuc3u>.

 

The Fictional Crime Syndicate SPECTRE: What Every Mid-Century Modern Enthusiast Should Know and Love

Dr Evil Blofeld

“I didn’t spend six years in Evil Medical School to be called Mister.”

~ Dr. Evil, villain in Austin Powers spoofing Ernst Stavro Blofeld

By the same token, Ernst Blofeld—SPECTRE’s number one operative—didn’t spend fifty years tied up in lawsuits and reverting license agreements to be called “the reason for nearly every problem and devastation James Bond faced over his life.”

Or did he…?

In the recently released Bond film—Spectre—Blofeld gleefully takes the wrap for many of the major tragedies of Bond’s life since his childhood. This scenario is a bit challenging for Bond aficionados to swallow.

Perhaps more compelling—yet equally difficult to believe—is the narrative of the real life evolution of the fictitious SPECTRE, from its intellectual infancy to its current day title as a feature film. (Although, because of the above mentioned license agreements issues, SPECTRE must now be written as “Spectre”. In this post I’ll continue to write it as an acronym, because I’m a vintage chick, and it will always be SPECTRE in my heart.)

Let’s leap back in time. In 1958 Bond novelist Ian Fleming approached Kevin McClory—a screenwriter, producer, and director—for a collaboration. Their mission: to produce the first James Bond film. Jack Whittingham, a British screenwriter, joined the team, and between 1959 and 1960 the three men struggled to craft a script with a working title of Thunderball.

However, as McClory and Whittingham attempted to wrap up the failing screenplay, Fleming boldly went rogue. Without McClory or Whittingham’s knowledge or consent, Fleming sent a draft copy to his agent. The result…Thunderball was published as a novel in 1961 with only one author credited:  Ian Fleming. Needless to say, McClory and Whittingham were not happy.

Lawsuits exploded and even though copyrights were awarded in 1963 the battle over Thunderball raged on for years. Buried within the Thunderball script lay a villainous treasurer named SPECTRE (SPecial Executive for Counter-intelligence, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion)—a fictional crime syndicate with a modern, corporate structure.

Long story short… EON, the film producers of the majority of the Bond films, only possessed a license to use the SPECTRE organization and its operatives for six films, from 1962 until 1971. It wasn’t until November 2013, seven years after the death of Kevin McClory, that his estate returned the SPECTRE license to Danjaq, LLC, the parent company of EON. Exactly two years later, Blofeld and SPECTRE returned to the world of motion pictures.

There is no question that SPECTRE’s roots are planted in the mid-century—specifically the early 1960s. In 1961 Fleming published the Thunderball novel featuring SPECTRE as Bond’s foe, and EON introduced the organization to the world on the big screen in 1962. It’s my opinion mid-century modern—as a culture, style, and attitude—peaked around 1960. Hence, SPECTRE’s modern characterizations grow out its period of creation, but also—and less obviously—its creator’s ideology.

Three strong, defining elements of modern in the above mentioned context include efficiency, functionality, and breaking from tradition. SPECTRE nails these themes and keeps on punching.

Numerical order is efficiency in its rawest sense. Every operative within SPECTRE is assigned and referred to by a number, from one to twenty-one. Ernst Blofeld—head of SPECTRE who’s featured in seven EON films and one Warner Brothers production of James Bond—is Number One. Emilio Largo, second in command and the main antagonist in Thunderball, is referred to as Number Two. Number Three was allocated to short yet feisty Rosa Klebb. In From Russia with Love—EON’s second Bond film—she engaged knives from the tip of her shoe during an attack on Bond. Though quite serious in Bond films, all three of these characters were hilariously spoofed in the 1997 movie Austin Powers, as Dr. Evil, Number Two, and Frau Farbissina.

bond klebb

Numerical labels create a sense that all members are replaceable, and thus easily eliminated. This immediate mortality is displayed often, including in the current Bond film Spectre, as operatives are swiftly disciplined for their failures at the conference table by means of violent and gruesome death.

In the movie version of Thunderball, Number One (Blofeld) determines Number Nine is guilty of embezzlement. Number One flips a switch and Nine is electrocuted in his leather chair as the other operatives look on. Without hesitation, or even removal of the body, the meeting continues—it’s business as usually for SPECTRE.

blofeld conference

Some film variations of Ernst Blofeld exemplify a definite effeminate bent for the character. Sporting a Mau suit (very mod, by the way) while caressing a fluffy, white pussycat, Blofeld wears a deep scar across his face and is presented as less manly than Bond. This unique stereotype falls well within the modern cultural ideals of breaking from traditional super villains, and serves as a precursor to the sexual revolution and acceptance of alternative sexual lifestyles. However, the underlying intent may actually be more politically charged than cultural. As Fleming’s country suffered post war decline, the author and film producers position a virile, masculine British agent (Bond) against the lesser, deformed Russian villain (Blofeld). It was a modern stab at a cold war enemy.

It is often postulated that Fleming chose a corporate model (as opposed to a government structure) for SPECTRE because he believed—in 1959—that the cold war could end before the projected release date of the Thunderball film—in two years— and he didn’t want the film to be “dated.” I believe this theory is too simplistic; I think Fleming’s reasoning was grounded in modernism.

England’s post war decline as an imperial producer gave way to corporate expansion with its economy turning to banking and stocks. Harold Perkin, a British social historian, called this “the rise of the professional society.” Fleming came to age as a writer in this era and thus, so did Bond. But this evolution is most apparent in the motivations of SPECTRE, which are as equally ideological as they are capitalist. In Thunderball, SPECTRE steals two NATO atomic bonds, and holds the world ransom for £100 million in diamonds (capitalistic), in exchange for not destroying an unspecified major city in either England or the United States (ideological).

Not only does Fleming’s antagonist follow a modernist model, but the author’s writing narrative also adheres to elements of efficiency and with a parting from tradition. In the book, Ian Fleming & James Bond: The Cultural Politics of 007 (a collection of fifteen essays), Fleming’s style is described as “characterized by an almost arid order and efficiency. At times, character and suspense literally give way to textbook-like displays of professional knowledge—decisively non-narrative list, definitions, and reports.”

Kingsley Amis, British author, describes the “Fleming Effect”, in which Amis “praises [Fleming] for his ability to construe the fantastic in precise, realistic terms.” Amis also suggests that Fleming is more interested in the encyclopedic facts than action—that the author provides the excitement of action only to help us swallow the influx of presented facts.

blofeld and feline

So how does SPECTRE fare in the newest Bond flick—released November 6—which shares its name? Does the organization remain efficient, modern, and corporate? Does Blofeld retain his cold wickedness while clinging to his fluffy feline? Does a sacrifice at SPECTRE’s notorious conference table measure up to previous, horrific, operative exterminations? I’ll let you decide. Even though Spectre is far from my favorite film in the franchise, I found it fascinating how EON patiently bided time for forty years, then dusted off a mid-century work of art and unveiled it as a far-reaching, contemporary spectacle.

 

 

Sources:

Goodman, Greg. “The Battle of the Bonds: From Thunderball to Spectre”. Universal Exports:  Keeping 007 Safe Since 1996. N.p, n.d. Web. 9 Dec 2015.
<http://www.universalexports.net/00Sony.shtml>

Amis, Kingsley. The Bond Dossier. New York City, New York. New American Library, 1965. Print.

Comentale, Edward P., Stephen Watt and Skip Willman. Ian Fleming & James Bond: The Cultural Politics of 007. Indiana University, Bloomington Indiana:  Indiana University Press, 2005. Print.